As someone with zero exposure to the study of mythology, this book left me in awe. It’s a transcription of a series of television interviews of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers. Joseph is an expert in mythology, and reading the Socratic dialogue between this pair is very fascinating. I had three main takeaways:
- Mythology is mostly invisible (unless you choose to see it), but it supports our visible experience.
- Mythology seems like a bottomless pit of symbolic and metaphorical content.
- The repetition and reaffirmation of myths sustains our culture.
He gives examples where myths can be ancient or contemporary, originals or retellings, and localized or (occasionally) universal to the human condition. It’s also just fascinating to hear the stories of other cultures, which comprise their mythic imagination.
I find myself thinking back to passages in this book all the time, which is why I give it such a high rating.
One of the many distinctions between the celebrity and the hero, he said, is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society.
I tarried awhile in the copy he had given me of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And I thought of the time I first discovered the world of the mythic hero. I had wandered into the little public library of the town where I grew up and, casually exploring the stacks, pulled down a book that opened wonders to me: Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods for the sake of the human race; Jason, braving the dragon to seize the Golden Fleece; the Knights of the Round Table, pursuing the Holy Grail. But not until I met Joseph Campbell did I understand that the Westerns I saw at the Saturday matinees had borrowed freely from those ancient tales.
And that the stories we learned in Sunday school corresponded with those of other cultures that recognized the soul’s high adventure, the quest of mortals to grasp the reality of God.
Greek and Latin and biblical literature used to be part of everyone’s education. Now, when these were dropped, a whole tradition of Occidental mythological information was lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that, we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place.
think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.
Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts—but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.
Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is. Marriage, for example. What is marriage? The myth tells you what it is. It’s the reunion of the separated duad. Originally you were one. You are now two in the world, but the recognition of the spiritual identity is what marriage is. It’s different from a love affair. It has nothing to do with that. It’s another mythological plane of experience
This is the first nation in the world that was ever established on the basis of reason instead of simply warfare. These were eighteenth-century deists, these gentlemen. Over here we read, “In God We Trust.” But that is not the god of the Bible. These men did not believe in a Fall. They did not think the mind of man was cut off from God. The mind of man, cleansed of secondary and merely temporal concerns, beholds with the radiance of a cleansed mirror a reflection of the rational mind of God. Reason puts you in touch with God. Consequently, for these men, there is no special revelation anywhere, and none is needed, because the mind of man cleared of its fallibilities is sufficiently capable of the knowledge of God. All people in the world are thus capable because all people in the world are capable of reason.
Now back to the Great Seal. When you count the number of ranges on this pyramid, you find there are thirteen. And when you come to the bottom, there is an inscription in Roman numerals. It is, of course, 1776. Then, when you add one and seven and seven and six, you get twenty-one, which is the age of reason, is it not? It was in 1776 that the thirteen states declared independence. The number thirteen is the number of transformation and rebirth. At the Last Supper there were twelve apostles and one Christ, who was going to die and be reborn. Thirteen is the number of getting out of the field of the bounds of twelve into the transcendent. You have the twelve signs of the zodiac and the sun. These men were very conscious of the number thirteen as the number of resurrection and rebirth and new life, and they played it up here all the way through.
Now look at the right side of the dollar bill. Here’s the eagle, the bird of Zeus. The eagle is the downcoming of the god into the field of time. The bird is the incarnation principle of the deity. This is the bald eagle, the American eagle. This is the American counterpart of the eagle of the highest god, Zeus. He comes down, descending into the world of the pairs of opposites, the field of action. One mode of action is war and the other is peace. So in one of his feet the eagle holds thirteen arrows—that’s the principle of war. In the other he holds a laurel leaf with thirteen leaves—that is the principle of peaceful conversation. The eagle is looking in the direction of the laurel. That is the way these idealists who founded our country would wish us to be looking—diplomatic relationships and so forth. But thank God he’s got the arrows in the other foot, in case this doesn’t work. Now, what does the eagle represent? He represents what is indicated in this radiant sign above his head. I was lecturing once at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington on Hindu mythology, sociology, and politics. There’s a saying in the Hindu book of politics that the ruler must hold in one hand the weapon of war, the big stick, and in the other the peaceful sound of the song of cooperative action. And there I was, standing with my two hands like this, and everybody in the room laughed. I couldn’t understand. And then they began pointing. I looked back, and here was this picture of the eagle hanging on the wall behind my head in just the same posture that I was in. But when I looked, I also noticed this sign above his head, and that there were nine feathers in his tail. Nine is the number of the descent of the divine power into the world. When the Angelus rings, it rings nine times.
CAMPBELL: …the form of a Star of David.
MOYERS: This used to be Solomon’s Seal.
CAMPBELL: Yes. Do you know why it’s called Solomon’s Seal?
CAMPBELL: Solomon used to seal monsters and giants and things into jars.
Washington said, “As a result of our revolution, we have disengaged ourselves from involvement in the chaos of Europe.” His last word was that we not engage in foreign alliances. Well, we held on to his words until the First World War. And then we canceled the Declaration of Independence and rejoined the British conquest of the planet. And so we are now on one side of the pyramid. We’ve moved from one to two. We are politically, historically, now a member of one side of an argument.
The individual has to find an aspect of myth that relates to his own life. Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function—that is the one I’ve been speaking about, realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery.
there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to—and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myths can teach you that.
MOYERS: Don’t you think modern Americans have rejected the ancient idea of nature as a divinity because it would have kept us from achieving dominance over nature? How can you cut down trees and uproot the land and turn the rivers into real estate without killing God?
CAMPBELL: Yes, but that’s not simply a characteristic of modern Americans, that is the biblical condemnation of nature which they inherited from their own religion and brought with them, mainly from England. God is separate from nature, and nature is condemned of God. It’s right there in Genesis: we are to be the masters of the world.
When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating. And those are the people that we are one with.
Chief Seattle was one of the last spokesmen of the Paleolithic moral order. In about 1852, the United States Government inquired about buying the tribal lands for the arriving people of the United States, and Chief Seattle wrote a marvelous letter in reply. (N.B. The letter to President Pierce that Moyers is referring to has been debunked as a forgery and never existed, but is based on a third-hand recollection of a speech in 1855.).
Now the level of dream of “Will I pass the exam?” or “Should I marry this girl?”—that is purely personal. But, on another level, the problem of passing an exam is not simply a personal problem. Everyone has to pass a threshold of some kind. That is an archetypal thing. So there is a basic mythological theme there even though it is a personal dream. These two levels—the personal aspect and then the big general problem of which the person’s problem is a local example—are found in all cultures. For example, everyone has the problem of facing death. This is a standard mystery.
All you have to do is remember your dream in the first place, and write it down. Then take one little fraction of the dream, one or two images or ideas, and associate with them. Write down what comes to your mind, and again what comes to your mind, and again. You’ll find that the dream is based on a body of experiences that have some kind of significance in your life and that you didn’t know were influencing you. Soon the next dream will come along, and your interpretation will go further.
a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group.
Now, one of the main problems of mythology is reconciling the mind to this brutal precondition of all life, which lives by the killing and eating of lives. You don’t kid yourself by eating only vegetables, either, for they, too, are alive. So the essence of life is this eating of itself!
the serpent represents the primary function of life, mainly eating. Life consists in eating other creatures. You don’t think about that very much when you make a nice-looking meal. But what you’re doing is eating something that was recently alive. And when you look at the beauty of nature, and you see the birds picking around—they’re eating things. You see the cows grazing, they’re eating things. The serpent is a traveling alimentary canal, that’s about all it is. And it gives you that primary sense of shock, of life in its most primal quality.
We always think in terms of opposites. But God, the ultimate, is beyond the pairs of opposites, that is all there is to it.
The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for that innocence that is innocent of time, innocent of opposites, and that is the prime center out of which consciousness then becomes aware of the changes.
think what we are looking for is a way of experiencing the world that will open to us the transcendent that informs it, and at the same time forms ourselves within it. That is what people want. That is what the soul asks for.
MOYERS: Are some myths more or less true than others?
CAMPBELL: They are true in different senses. Every mythology has to do with the wisdom of life as related to a specific culture at a specific time. It integrates the individual into his society and the society into the field of nature. It unites the field of nature with my nature. It’s a harmonizing force. Our own mythology, for example, is based on the idea of duality: good and evil, heaven and hell. And so our religions tend to be ethical in their accent. Sin and atonement. Right and wrong.
For instance, if I say to a person, “You are a nut,” I’m not suggesting that I think the person is literally a nut. “Nut” is a metaphor. The reference of the metaphor in religious traditions is to something transcendent that is not literally any thing. If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.
CAMPBELL: For example, Jesus ascended to heaven. The denotation would seem to be that somebody ascended to the sky. That’s literally what is being said. But if that were really the meaning of the message, then we have to throw it away, because there would have been no such place for Jesus literally to go. We know that Jesus could not have ascended to heaven because there is no physical heaven anywhere in the universe. Even ascending at the speed of light, Jesus would still be in the galaxy. Astronomy and physics have simply eliminated that as a literal, physical possibility. But if you read “Jesus ascended to heaven” in terms of its metaphoric connotation, you see that he has gone inward—not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, into the consciousness that is the source of all things, the kingdom of heaven within. The images are outward, but their reflection is inward. The point is that we should ascend with him by going inward. It is a metaphor of returning to the source, alpha and omega, of leaving the fixation on the body behind and going to the body’s dynamic source.
MOYERS: Aren’t you undermining one of the great traditional doctrines of the classic Christian faith—that the burial and the resurrection of Jesus prefigures our own?
CAMPBELL: That would be a mistake in the reading of the symbol. That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of the denotation instead of the connotation.
The metaphor is the mask of God through which eternity is to be experienced.
Indra says, “I ask. Teach.” (That, by the way, is a good Oriental idea: you don’t teach until you are asked. You don’t force your mission down people’s throats.)
Culture can also teach us to go past its concepts. That is what is known as initiation. A true initiation is when the guru tells you, “There is no Santa Claus.” Santa Claus is metaphoric of a relationship between parents and children. The relationship does exist, and so it can be experienced, but there is no Santa Claus. Santa Claus was simply a way of clueing children into the appreciation of a relationship.
The problem in middle life, when the body has reached its climax of power and begins to decline, is to identify yourself not with the body, which is falling away, but with the consciousness of which it is a vehicle. This is something I learned from myths. What am I? Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle?
I would say that is the basic theme of all mythology—that there is an invisible plane supporting the visible one.
, appreciative relationship to the principal food animal. Now, when we sit down to a meal, we thank God for giving us the food. These people thanked the animal.
CAMPBELL: Now, there is another story from a totally different sphere of society, of the samurai, the Japanese warrior, who had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. When he cornered the man who had murdered his overlord, and he was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, the man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in the warrior’s face. And the warrior sheathed the sword and walked away.
CAMPBELL: Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man in anger, then it would have been a personal act. And he had come to do another kind of act, an impersonal act of vengeance.
“Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Indian”—you know, that sort of thing. And she says, no, nothing of the kind. And he says, “Yes indeed!” And he gives a buffalo bellow, and all the buffalo get up, and they all do a slow buffalo dance with tails raised, and they go over, and they trample that poor man to death, so that he disappears entirely. He is just all broken up to pieces. All gone. The girl is crying, and her buffalo husband says, “So you are crying.” “Yes,” she says, “he is my daddy.” “Well,” he says, “but what about us? There are our children, at the bottom of the cliff, our wives, our parents—and you cry about your daddy.” Well, apparently he was a kind of compassionate buffalo, and he said, “Okay, if you can bring your daddy back to life again, I will let you go.”
CAMPBELL: That was a sacramental violation. You can see in many of the early nineteenth-century paintings by George Catlin of the Great Western Plains in his day literally hundreds of thousands of buffalo all over the place. And then, through the next half century, the frontiersmen, equipped with repeating rifles, shot down whole herds, taking only the skins to sell and leaving the bodies there to rot. This was a sacrilege.
MOYERS: It turned the buffalo from a “thou”—
CAMPBELL: —to an “it.”
The Indians addressed all of life as a “thou”—the trees, the stones, everything. You can address anything as a “thou,” and if you do it, you can feel the change in your own psychology. The ego that sees a “thou” is not the same ego that sees an “it.” And when you go to war with people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into “its.”
Now, in a cathedral, the imagery is in anthropomorphic form. God and Jesus and the saints and all are in human form. And in the caves the images are in animal form. But it’s the same thing, believe me. The form is secondary. The message is what is important.
I think it was Nietzsche who said, “Be careful lest in casting out the devils you cast out the best thing that’s in you.” Here, the deities who have been encountered—powers, let’s call them—are retained. The connection is maintained, not broken.
When a Sioux Indian would take the calumet, the pipe, he would hold it up stem to the sky so that the sun could take the first puff. And then he’d address the four directions always. In that frame of mind, when you’re addressing yourself to the horizon, to the world that you’re in, then you’re in your place in the world. It’s a different way to live.
MOYERS: You write in The Mythic Image about the center of transformation, the idea of a sacred place where the temporal walls may dissolve to reveal a wonder. What does it mean to have a sacred place?
CAMPBELL: This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.
MOYERS: This sacred place does for you what the plains did for the hunter.
CAMPBELL: For them the whole world was a sacred place. But our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the music that you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects. Or get the book you like to read. In your sacred place you get the “thou” feeling of life that these people had for the whole world in which they lived.
When the Spanish first saw Mexico City, or Tenochtitlán, it was a greater city than any city in Europe. And it was a sacred city, with great temples. Now the Catholic cathedral is right where the temple of the sun used to be. That’s an example of land-claiming by the Christians. You see, they are transforming the same landscape into their landscape by putting their temple where the other temple was.
CAMPBELL: I’ve been to Chartres time and time again since.
MOYERS: And what do you find there?
CAMPBELL: It takes me back to a time when these spiritual principles informed the society. You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach an eighteenth-century town, it is the political palace that’s the tallest thing in the place. And when you approach a modern city, the tallest places are the office buildings, the centers of economic life.
The idea of the supernatural as being something over and above the natural is a killing idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing a thing they truly wanted to because the supernatural laws required them to live as directed by their clergy. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been put upon them as inescapable laws. This is a killer. The twelfth-century troubadour poetry of courtly love was a protest against this supernaturally justified violation of life’s joy in truth.
So in the forest and planting cultures, there is a sense of death as not death somehow, that death is required for new life. And the individual isn’t quite an individual, he is a branch of a plant. Jesus uses this image when he says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” That vineyard image is a totally different one from the separate animals.
The Garden is the place of unity, of nonduality of male and female, good and evil, God and human beings. You eat the duality, and you are on the way out. The tree of coming back to the Garden is the tree of immortal life, where you know that J and the Father are one. Getting back into that Garden is the aim of many a religion. When Yahweh threw man out of the Garden, he put two cherubim at the gate, with a flaming sword between.
We’re kept out of the Garden by our own fear and desire in relation to what we think to be the goods of our life.
What you get in the vegetation traditions is this notion of identity behind the surface display of duality. Behind all these manifestations is the one radiance, which shines through all things. The function of art is to reveal this radiance through the created object. When you see the beautiful organization of a fortunately composed work of art, you just say, “Aha!” Somehow it speaks to the order in your own life and leads to the realization of the very things that religions are concerned to render.
Very often one of the things that one learns as a member of the mystery religions is that the labyrinth, which blocks, is at the same time the way to eternal life. This is the final secret of myth—to teach you how to penetrate the labyrinth of life in such a way that its spiritual values come through.
in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: Sat, Chit, Ananda.
The word “Sat” means being. “Chit” means consciousness. “Ananda” means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.” I think it worked.
A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.
Odysseus’ son Telemachus was told by Athena, “Go find your father.” That father quest is a major hero adventure for young people. That is the adventure of finding what your career is, what your nature is, what your source is. You undertake that intentionally.
Don Quixote was the last hero of the Middle Ages. He rode out to encounter giants, but instead of giants, his environment produced windmills. Ortega points out that this story takes place about the time that a mechanistic interpretation of the world came in, so that the environment was no longer spiritually responsive to the hero. The hero is today running up against a hard world that is in no way responsive to his spiritual need.
Quixote saved the adventure for himself by inventing a magician who had just transformed the giants he had gone forth to encounter into windmills. You can do that, too, if you have a poetic imagination. Earlier, though, it was not a mechanistic world in which the hero moved but a world alive and responsive to his spiritual readiness. Now it has become to such an extent a sheerly mechanistic world, as interpreted through our physical sciences, Marxist sociology, and behavioristic psychology, that we’re nothing but a predictable pattern of wires responding to stimuli. This nineteenth-century interpretation has squeezed the freedom of the human will out of modern life.
A Hindu text says, “A dangerous path is this, like the edge of a razor.” This is a motif that occurs in medieval literature, also. When Lancelot goes to rescue Guinevere from captivity, he has to cross a stream on a sword’s edge with his bare hands and feet, a torrent flowing underneath. When you are doing something that is a brand-new adventure, breaking new ground, whether it is something like a technological breakthrough or simply a way of living that is not what the community can help you with, there’s always the danger of too much enthusiasm, of neglecting certain mechanical details. Then you fall off. “A dangerous path is this.” When you follow the path of your desire and enthusiasm and emotion, keep your mind in control, and don’t let it pull you compulsively into disaster.
MOYERS: But does a society need heroes?
CAMPBELL: Yes, I think so.
CAMPBELL: Because it has to have constellating images to pull together all these tendencies to separation, to pull them together into some intention.
The founders of all religions have gone on quests like that. The Buddha went into solitude and then sat beneath the bo tree, the tree of immortal knowledge, where he received an illumination that has enlightened all of Asia for twenty-five hundred years. After baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus went into the desert for forty days; and it was out of that desert that he came with his message. Moses went to the top of a mountain and came down with the tables of the law. Then you have the one who founds a new city—almost all the old Greek cities were founded by heroes who went off on quests and had surprising adventures, out of which each then founded a city. You might also say that the founder of a life—your life or mine, if we live our own lives, instead of imitating everybody else’s life—comes from a quest as well.
Mythology is very fluid. Most of the myths are self-contradictory. You may even find four or five myths in a given culture, all giving different versions of the same mystery. Then theology comes along and says it has got to be just this way. Mythology is poetry, and the poetic language is very flexible. Religion turns poetry into prose. God is literally up there, and this is literally what he thinks, and this is the way you’ve got to behave to get into proper relationship with that god up there.
There’s a whole body of miracles that float, like particles in the air, and a man of a certain type of achievement comes along, and all these things cluster around him. These stories of miracles let us know simply that this remarkable man preached of a spiritual order that is not to be identified with the merely physical order, so he could perform spiritual magic. It doesn’t follow that he actually did any of these things, although of course it’s possible. Three or four times I’ve seen what appear to be magical effects occur: men and women of power can do things that you wouldn’t think possible. We don’t really know what the limits of the possible might be. But the miracles of legend need not necessarily have been facts. The Buddha walked on water, as did Jesus. The Buddha ascended to heaven and returned.
I have a theory that, if you can find out where a person is blocked, it should be possible to find a mythological counterpart for that particular threshold problem.
When Ben Kenobi says, “May the Force be with you,” he’s speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions.
The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for.
It is within everybody to recognize values in his life that are not confined to maintenance of the body and economic concerns of the day.
Myths inspire the realization of the possibility of your perfection, the fullness of your strength, and the bringing of solar light into the world. Slaying monsters is slaying the dark things. Myths grab you somewhere down inside. As a boy, you go at it one way, as I did reading my Indian stories. Later on, myths tell you more, and more, and still more. I think that anyone who has ever dealt seriously with religious or mythic ideas will tell you that we learn them as a child on one level, but then many different levels are revealed. Myths are infinite in their revelation.
MOYERS: How do I slay that dragon in me? What’s the journey each of us has to make, what you call “the soul’s high adventure”?
CAMPBELL: My general formula for my students is “Follow your bliss.” Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.
MOYERS: Is it my work or my life?
CAMPBELL: If the work that you’re doing is the work that you chose to do because you are enjoying it, that’s it. But if you think, “Oh, no! I couldn’t do that!” that’s the dragon locking you in. “No, no, I couldn’t be a writer,” or “No, no, I couldn’t possibly do what So-and-so is doing.”
MOYERS: In this sense, unlike heroes such as Prometheus or Jesus, we’re not going on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves.
CAMPBELL: But in doing that, you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself.
Sometimes we look for great wealth to save us, a great power to save us, or great ideas to save us, when all we need is that piece of string.
The big problem of any young person’s life is to have models to suggest possibilities. Nietzsche says, “Man is the sick animal.” Man is the animal that doesn’t know what to do with itself. The mind has many possibilities, but we can live no more than one life. What are we going to do with ourselves? A living myth presents contemporary models.
This, I believe, is the great Western truth: that each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s. In the traditional Orient, on the other hand, and generally in all traditionally grounded societies, the individual is cookie-molded. His duties are put upon him in exact and precise terms, and there’s no way of breaking out from them. When you go to a guru to be guided on the spiritual way, he knows just where you are on the traditional path, just where you have to go next, just what you must do to get there. He’ll give you his picture to wear, so you can be like him. That wouldn’t be a proper Western pedagogical way of guidance. We have to give our students guidance in developing their own pictures of themselves. What each must seek in his life never was, on land or sea. It is to be something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by anyone else.
The way to find out about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy—not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call “following your bliss.”
The adventure is its own reward—but it’s necessarily dangerous, having both negative and positive possibilities, all of them beyond control. We are following our own way, not our daddy’s or our mother’s way. So we are beyond protection in a field of higher powers than we know. One has to have some sense of what the conflict possibilities will be in this field, and here a few good archetypal stories like this may help us to know what to expect. If we have been impudent and altogether ineligible for the role into which we have cast ourselves, it is going to be a demon marriage and a real mess. However, even here there may be heard a rescuing voice, to convert the adventure into a glory beyond anything ever imagined.
There is an important idea in Nietzsche, of Amor fati, the “love of your fate,” which is in fact your life. As he says, if you say no to a single factor in your life, you have unraveled the whole thing. Furthermore, the more challenging or threatening the situation or context to be assimilated and affirmed, the greater the stature of the person who can achieve it. The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply. My friend had thought, “God did this to me.” I told her, “No, you did it to yourself. The God is within you. You yourself are your creator. If you find that place in yourself from which you brought this thing about, you will be able to live with it and affirm it, perhaps even enjoy it, as your life.”
My wife is a dancer, and she tells me that this is true in dance as well. There’s a center of quietness within, which has to be known and held. If you lose that center, you are in tension and begin to fall apart.
And the sixth, finally, is of the hungry ghosts, the souls of those in whose love for others there was attachment, clinging, and expectation. The hungry ghosts have enormous, ravenous bellies and pinpoint mouths. However, in the midst of each of these realms there is a Buddha, signifying the possibility of release and illumination.
It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth—penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told. So this is the penultimate truth.
CAMPBELL: It’s important to live life with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and of your own mystery. This gives life a new radiance, a new harmony, a new splendor. Thinking in mythological terms helps to put you in accord with the inevitables of this vale of tears. You learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.
MOYERS: The adventure of the hero?
CAMPBELL: Yes, the adventure of the hero—the adventure of being alive.
In the Old Testament, you have a God who creates a world without a goddess. Then when you come to Proverbs, there she is, Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom, who says, “When He created the world, I was there, and I was His greatest joy.” But in the Hebrew tradition the idea of a son of God is repulsive, it is not considered at all. The Messiah as the son of God is not actually God’s son. He is one who in his character and dignity is worthy to be likened to the son of God. I’m sure there’s no idea of a virgin birth in that tradition. The virgin birth comes into Christianity by way of the Greek tradition. When you read the four gospels, for example, the only one in which the virgin birth appears is the Gospel According to Luke, and Luke was a Greek.
Well, it’s certainly true in life that the greatest hell one can know is to be separated from the one you love. That’s why I’ve liked the Persian myth. Satan is God’s lover
Love itself is a pain, you might say—the pain of being truly alive.
You have to go past the imagined image of Jesus. Such an image of one’s god becomes a final obstruction, one’s ultimate barrier. You hold on to your own ideology, your own little manner of thinking, and when a larger experience of God approaches, an experience greater than you are prepared to receive, you take flight from it by clinging to the image in your mind. This is known as preserving your faith.
The main teaching of Christ, for example, is, Love your enemies.
do not pluck the mote from your enemy’s eyes, but pluck the beam from your own. No one is in a position to disqualify his enemy’s way of life. (Matt 7:3)
MOYERS: You once took the saying of Jesus, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust”—you once took this to be the highest, the noblest, the boldest of the Christian teachings. Do you still feel that way?
CAMPBELL: I think of compassion as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.
There’s no danger in interpreting the symbols of a religious system and calling them metaphors instead of facts. What that does is to turn them into messages for your own inward experience and life. The system suddenly becomes a personal experience.
Heraclitus said strife is the creator of all great things. Something like that may be implicit in this symbolic trickster idea. In our tradition, the serpent in the Garden did the job. Just when everything was fixed and fine, he threw an apple into the picture.
A key difference between mythology and our Judeo-Christian religion is that the imagery of mythology is rendered with humor. You realize that the image is symbolic of something. You’re at a distance from it. But in our religion, everything is prosaic, and very, very serious. You can’t fool around with Yahweh.
I’ve lost a lot of friends, as well as my parents. A realization has come to me very, very keenly, however, that I haven’t lost them. That moment when I was with them has an everlasting quality about it that is now still with me. What it gave me then is still with me, and there’s a kind of intimation of immortality in that.
There is a story of the Buddha, who encountered a woman who had just lost her son, and she was in great grief. The Buddha said, “I suggest that you just ask around to meet somebody who has not lost a treasured child or husband or relative or friend.” Understanding the relationship of mortality to something in you that is transcendent of mortality is a difficult task.
Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the place. But each incarnation, you might say, has a potentiality, and the mission of life is to live that potentiality. How do you do it? My answer is, “Follow your bliss.” There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the center, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the center and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.